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American Journalism Review on perils of Internet ratings

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 1997 14:05:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Declan McCullagh <[email protected]>
To: [email protected]
Subject: American Journalism Review on perils of Internet ratings



X-Rated Ratings?

                The Clinton administration and the Internet industry
                have championed voluntary ratings for Web sites to
                create a ``family-friendly'' environment in cyberspace.
                Their campaign nearly led online news organizations to
                create a licensing system for Web journalism.

                By J.D. Lasica
                From AJR, October 1997

                WHEN PRESIDENT CLINTON challenged the high-tech industry
                this summer to create a ``family-friendly Internet'' by
cleaning up
                cyber-smut and other offensive content, newspaper editorials
                applauded the president's decision to forgo government
                regulation and let private industry police the Net.

                     Few realized that the White House's ``parental empowerment
                initiative'' would plunge online news publications headlong
                the thorniest thicket of free speech issues in the history of
                cyberspace--and lead to the news media's rejection of the
                president's proposal when it comes to their own Web sites.

                     The fate of an Internet self-rating system, however,
                far from settled. And the online news media's actions in recent
                weeks have been riddled with more intrigue than a John Le Carr*
                thriller--with the final chapters still unwritten.

                     Consider the questions the online news world took up after
                the president's call for an Internet ratings system: How would
                Web news sites rate themselves for violence, language and
                frankness when publishing stories involving war, murder, rape,
                gang shootings, domestic abuse, hate crimes and teenage

                     If an exception is carved out for news sites, which
sites would
                qualify? Where do you draw the line between news and
                information, entertainment, propaganda and opinion? And who

                     If news sites refuse to rate themselves, will they be
shut off
                from a growing number of parents and others who are
                demanding filters on their Web browsers?

                     Finally, will the entire ratings scheme transform the
Net from
                a global democratic village into a balkanized, regulated medium
                where foreign despots can easily censor any material that
                from the party line?

                     Questions like these are now being vigorously debated by
                online journalists who've barely had time to catch their breath
                after the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down the Communications
                Decency Act in June.

                     The Clinton administration has adopted the approach
                championed by the Internet industry, which fears another effort
                by Congress to clamp down on ``indecent material'' in
                cyberspace. At the July 16 Internet summit at the White House,
                the president called on such companies as Netscape, America
                Online and IBM to give parents the tools needed to shield
                children from obscenity, violence and antisocial messages
on the

                     ``We need to encourage every Internet site, whether or
not it
                has material harmful to minors, to rate its contentsÉto help
                ensure that our children do not end up in the red-light
                of cyberspace,'' Clinton said.

                     The assembled captains of industry obliged. Netscape
                indicated it would support Internet ratings in its next
                meaning that about 97 percent of all browsers will support
                Internet ratings. (Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 already
                includes ratings as an option for parents to turn on.) The
                engines Lycos, Excite and Yahoo! also fell into line,
pledging to
                ask for ratings labels for all Web sites in their directories.